Cyborg Mestiza was a collaborative exhibit premiering at HighWire Arts in San Antonio, Texas that showcased work from emerging and established artists operating in borderland territories as expressed by their geolocation, gender and sexual identity, or the boundaries between their digital and physical consciousness. The show was co-curated by Emily Royall and Skye Rosales and included a performance and artist talk by House of Kenzo.
Cyborg Mestiza fell from the sky in February of my fourth year in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Each morning I rose and decorated myself with the armor of arctic survival, and began the slow trek to my cozy job as a data and policy analyst for the State Government. In the evenings I met with Gaia Information Technology (GaiaIT), a feminist technology collective, and we would create projects that tested or contested the fabric of our inherited digital experience. We built sentient networks that evolved based on i-ching readings, or comforted existential homeless drug dealers by anonymous chat on the Darkweb. Our work blended ritual and healing into online interactions, and we sought to create opportunities for self-identifying women to define how our experience and use of Internet could be different.
Uprooted from my native South Texas, the best way I could connect to my shape shifting identity as a queer woman at the time was through my work with GaiaIT and the work of artists using the Internet as their medium. Feminists like Donna Haraway, VNS Matrix and Nancy Flude promised visions of a future not so different from my present—where bodies were secondary to digital consciousness. They described a space where our digital identities could be fluid and forming. In The Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway outlines a post-gender new order where cloud technology and artificial intelligence obscure known boundaries of consciousness. If you’ve ever seen Ghost in the Shell, the philosophizing roboticist “telling it like it is” about AI is a Donna Haraway cameo.
One morning on my way to work, I heard a song that must have been recorded from my hometown in south Texas. The song trailed with a cascading chorus of cicadas—the kind that only sing in the dead of summer at twilight. Tears slid down my cheeks and froze into little tiny stalactites on my chin.
That was the moment I decided to move back to San Antonio.
“Read this,” my high school art teacher, mentor and protector Luis handed me a bright yellow book in 2004, “She will help you understand.” Borderlands/La Frontera, by Gloria Anzaldúa peered at me from my childhood bookshelf at my parents’ home in suburban SA. As I unpacked, I sat with the book for the first time in decades— reading it now as a blossomed woman having just killed her idols.
In Borderlands/Fronteras Anzaldúa crafts one of the first queer narratives in the Southwest. She unpacks the symbology of indigenous deities and resurrects them as the gods and goddesses of an inclusive, indigenous, non-binary culture. Reading Anzaldúa, I reconnected to my own hyperlocal sense of queerness.
Myths tell us where we come from and who we are. Anzaldúa’s work generously provides the tools, language and symbols that set the foundation for a myth that has yet to be written. Texas is still recovering from a complex and bloody history of colonization leading to the simultaneous fragmentation and integration of race and culture. At the same time, we are rapidly accepting new members to our society with an anticipated doubling in population over the next 30 years. As we grow, we also transition into a digital landscape of cloud technologies, server farms and cell phone towers making digital life as pervasive as our physical, borderland existence.
Cyborg Mestiza is a chapter of that myth. Female and non-binary identifying artists were welcomed to contribute to what became a platform for connection and conversation about technology and feminist futures in the Southwest. Works in the show interpreted ‘Cyborg Mestiza’ as feminist ideal, fluid body, neo-tribal object, spiritual glitch, and online sisterhood. To reflect our diverse community we offered all materials, including our website, in English and Spanish. What follows is a discussion from my perspective, of three emerging themes from Cyborg Mestiza; digital intimacy, ritual in online futures, and borderland queerness.
Digital Intimacy & The True-Self Selfie
Intimacy is the ability to bring the divine aspect of one’s self into physical reality without fear of reprisal. The term, “intimacy” is derived from the Latin, “intimare” or “to make known.” We make known our truest self to another in intimacy.
What happens when so many versions of ourselves compete for our attention and for the attention of others? The irony must not be lost on us that we navigate online spaces using profile pictures and avatars—originally the Sanskrit term for the embodiment of a god on earth. When we divide our divine self across avatars, each one crafted to fit a dimension of expression along the axis of Facebook, Instagram or Twitter’s constraints— to what extent is self-fragmentation across digital platforms empowering?
Can we take back these technologies and use them as mirrors to our truest selves?
Olivia Pepper’s SKRYING in which the artist appeared to visitors via Skype to perform traditional healing rituals. Mixed media, interactive installation
SKRYING and Digital Queens reflect the possibility of wrestling with technology in a way that captures the most authentic, blunt, embarrassing moments of our truest selves. At the opening, artist Olivia Pepper led a guided meditation asking participants to take a “true-self selfie.” As described by Pepper, “taking a true-self selfie means looking directly, deeply into the camera in an untouched, unauthorized moment”, and daring to publicize the image of an authentic true-self you.
Pepper advocates that we recognize that magical potential of the digital devices our species has created, and that we radically transform our use of them to reflect our most divine self.
After observing a lack of female net artists online, Acidwinzip, Ursula Zavala focused on positive images of the female digital experience. This project attempts to build unity within women arts communities online in order to form a powerful and fearless unified voice. Digital Print.
Ritual in Online Futures
Ritual is known to all human societies. It gathers a community around a series of prescribed events or actions intended to elicit a spiritual response—one that helps us navigate the complexity of cosmic chaos through collaborative order.
Artist Aditi Ohri examines ritual as her inheritance, dissecting femininity as it has been ceremonially passed on to her in through her Desi community living in Texas. Rosales takes a traditional ritual, the Day of the Dead altar ceremony, and resurrects it as a mode of digital self-worship.
Using the sari as a departure point, Aditi Ohri seeks to uncover womxn’s stories in her ancestry. Through architectural motifs and representations of kinship among womxn, she invokes the zenana, the part of the home dedicated to seclusion of women in India, to create a safe space to dissect femininity as she has inherited it. Video Installation.
Skye Rosales’s Altar Ego is an active altar that utilizes cyber-paganism in addition to standard Mexican Day of the Dead rituals to develop a multi-platform, multi-media method of self-worship. Mixed media installation.
Ritual has all but disappeared from post-modern life. In transition from our conquered, physical world to a hybrid digital/physical life, these artists called for a recollection of ritual memory by appealing to our forgotten heritage, or calling for new rituals that navigate the challenging territory of a hyper-connected future.
Emily Royall’s My Medicine, juxtaposes healing as community-based ritual with its contemporary alternative as manufactured medication. The piece references the popular practice of Limpia, spiritual cleansing by a neighborhood doctor or Curandera drifting an egg across the body. Mixed media installation.
We all live in some form of borderland. Borders define the boundaries between neighbors, tax brackets and languages. Borderland queerness emerged in this show as the last-mile frustration, the certainty that the category that cannot contain the nuances of our hearts, authentic bodies or minds.
Robin Kang Focuses on the divinity of human error in technological processes, as she modifies the operating software of a digital Jacard loom to produce organic-glitch weave patterns. Hand Jacquard woven cotton, hand dyed wool, satin, metallic and synthetic yarns, 11.5” x 25”.
House of Kenzo performance.
Borderland queerness is the failed standardized exam, the pencil tapping anxiously as clocks tick backwards. Borderland queerness occurs when all members of a segregated society in Everytown America are distributed 23 & Me DNA kits and discover a shared Nepalese heritage. Borderland queerness occurs when Google identifies a straight woman as a man as a result of her browsing history.
The artists of Cyborg Mestiza navigated complex themes intersecting in our borderland region. For me, Cyborg Mestiza was a way to find my home by creating a community reflective of both the change I observed within myself, and all around me. My role was to whisper the word “Cyborg Mestiza,” and see what happened next.
Abe Heath & Ursula Barker embody a future where all bodies are legible, giving shape to the Cyborg Mestiza as a mythical character. Video Installation.
Transcript from the video:
It is now that I find myself tucked between metal and blood
Finding myself not in you and through you but
Two inches inside
In the future everything is porn
Porn is akin to kindness the mundane,
Your fingers running over the rusty self
The internal becomes the external
The collective the individual
I must exist beyond muse, embodied.